Change your habit, time it right

Lateness can be stressful and a career-buster. Ask a friend to hold you accountable, don’t be scared of down-time—some tips to help you be punctual


Chronically late people underestimate how long a task will take by as much as 40%, says a study. Photo: iStockphoto
Chronically late people underestimate how long a task will take by as much as 40%, says a study. Photo: iStockphoto

Are you playing catch-up with your appointments? Rushing, even running, from one meeting to the next?

You are determined you will not be late again. Yet you repeat the same behaviour over and over.

Missing the first 10 minutes of a movie may not be a big offence, but forever running behind schedule can wreak havoc in relationships, leave you feeling frantic and cost you good money.

While the effect of tardiness on the bottom line of a company is significant, adding to that cost is the ripple effect of late-starting meetings, which affect productivity throughout the organization.

However, being punctuality challenged is not just about missing the plane or not reaching a meeting on time, it also means monetary penalties like late fees and a bad reputation among peers. “Many people who are constantly late think it is not a big deal. They think they will just do it better next time. But it is a big deal. Your professional reputation rides on your behaviour and actions much more than you may think,” says Craig Jarrow, a US-based time management expert and author of Time Management Ninja.

There is also the self-inflicted stress of being a last-minute person, forever rushing to get things done.

If these are not reasons enough to change your habit of being fashionably late, there is a bigger reason to reckon with: Lateness can become a career-buster. “Managers overwhelmingly said they were less likely to promote persistently tardy employees because they’re seen as people who lack discipline and enthusiasm,” writes time management expert Diana DeLonzor in Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures For The Punctually Challenged.

Constantly late employees not only affect the bottom line but are also bad for morale in general. “When an employee is repeatedly late, other employees wonder why they’re knocking themselves out to get in on time,” adds DeLonzor.

On an organizational level, a combination of prevention, penalties, rewards and coaching are often key to dealing with tardiness.

On a personal level, if you are worried you’ll be late for the meeting again, don’t give the usual excuses of traffic, bad weather or your alarm clock’s snooze button working overtime. You can now blame your “planning fallacy” or the strong tendency to chronically underestimate task completion.

Psychologists have found that chronically late people simply underestimate how long a task will take by as much as 40%, even if they have completed a similar task in the past within a specific time frame.

In 1994, psychology professors Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin and Michael Ross performed the first extensive research on the tendency to underestimate future duration. The study, published in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, states that when undergraduates were asked to estimate when they would finish their honours thesis, participants underestimated their completion time by 39%. In the same study, when participants made predictions for an everyday, non-academic task (like writing a letter to a friend) and an academic task (like completing an essay) that would be finished within the next week, they underestimated completion time by 46%.

“People frequently underestimate how long it will take them to complete a task…. There is a general tendency to underestimate past event duration, which creates biased memories of duration that could, in turn, affect future planning,” writes psychology professor Michael M. Roy in a 2005 study, published in the Psychological Bulletin journal.

While it may seem that a chronically late person is being purposefully tardy, research also suggests that they tend to have difficulty with time management.

If you are a card-carrying member of the better-late-than-never club, here are some tips to get you back on the punctuality bandwagon:

Prepare ahead: Keep your to-do list with all your appointments handy. If you do not know when and where you are supposed to be, then you are destined for failure. Check in every 30 or 60 minutes on your day’s agenda. This will enable you to easily transition from task to task throughout the day. Staying on top of your calendar and appointments is a prerequisite for being on time.

Get realistic: Can you make it to a 10 o’clock meeting if you are in one that will last from 9-10am? Unless you have found the secrets of time travel, don’t fix back-to-back meetings. This will only ensure that by the end of the day you are 60-90 minutes behind schedule on everything. Not to mention your fuming colleagues, who either had to wait for you to arrive before starting a discussion or restart meetings 10-20 minutes after their scheduled time.

Say “no”: If you overcommit and put in too many obligations, you will not be able to make it to all your appointments. Simple, right? You have the same amount of time in the day as everyone else. Do not take on obligations that you know, in advance, you will not be able to keep.

Don’t try to be on time, be early: Since punctuality-challenged people always underestimate the time taken to reach a place or complete a task, start planning to arrive at your appointments early. This will give you buffer time to tide over any eventualities like a broken-down car or traffic jam. It will also create more time for you.

Don’t be scared of down-time: Contrary to popular belief, getting somewhere early is a wonderful thing. It helps you boost your productivity by letting you fit in essential mini tasks, like checking mail, reading, returning phone calls in the precious minutes “in-between” everyday events.

Keep a time buddy: Ask a friend, colleague or spouse to hold you accountable for not showing up on time. There can be a reward for being punctual and a serious penalty for being tardy. We tend to form habits faster when we have an accountability partner.

Don’t underestimate lateness. Whether it is damaged relationships, getting fired from your job, late fees, or a tarnished reputation, being late will have negative consequences, sooner than you think. While it may take a change of perspective for you to make punctuality a regular part of your routine, with time and patience you can start staying ahead of time rather than being a last-minute person.

Joy Ghose is the co-founder of FreeMind PitStop, a New Delhi-based productivity coaching firm.

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